Find me something different or unusual….’ is a phrase I heard often when I headed Peter Rand’s UK venue finding team, and was usually followed by ‘Make it somewhere central ’,” says Trident Hospitality’s Martin Dempster.
“To me the ‘Midlands’ stretches north to Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and includes such places as the Stoke Rochford Hotel near Grantham or Yarnfield Park Conference Centre near Stoke,” he adds.
“The ‘Midlands’ also reaches the boundaries of East Anglia across to Gloucester in the west and down to Oxford in the south,” although Dempster notes many simply think it is just the areas in around the West Midlands – Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry.
“People no longer just come up for a meeting and then go straight home,” he adds. “The choice of entertainment, historic locations, fine restaurants and bars throughout the region make the Midlands a ‘must-see’ destination and inhibiting venue rates in London mean some companies are finding the region can offer real value both for day delegates and those staying longer.
“Groups needing opportunities for ‘team bonding activities’ or bespoke events are well catered for, either just off the excellent motorway infrastructure or further afield in the leafy delights of Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick,” he adds. Indeed, Warwick Conferences has a new £5.3m jewel in its meetings venue crown on the University of Warwick campus due to open this autumn
Karen Guile, director of Warwickshire-based agency Tobook Ltd, says that, for many events hosting international delegates, London may seem the obvious choice. “However, with Birmingham International and East Midlands Airports offering links to the majority of European cities, the Midlands can offer a cost effective alternative to the capital,” she says.
“Midlands venues can offer equally high standards to rival London venues, while still being able to offer real value for money.”
Guile offers four venue suggestions for consideration in the Midlands:
Leicester Racecourse – Two miles from Leicester train station and less than 10 minutes’ drive from the M69/M1. You can host a meeting in one of the boxes, or for larger numbers consider the Kube. Dine in the restaurant while watching the horse racing.
Ardencote Manor, Warwick – 15 minutes’ drive from both Junction 6 of the M42 and Warwick Parkway rail station, this hotel offers meetings facilities, a spa and golf, as well as grounds for teambuilding activities.
Yarnfield Park Midlands Conference Centre – A flexible approach to budgets and outstanding service.
Etc Venues Maple House, Birmingham – Flexible meeting space, a dedicated area for coffee and lunch breaks, and décor designed to encourage creativity and engagement.
Finally, says Guille, “Negotiation is an option in the Midlands and there are some amazing venues offering exceptional rates.”
A record-breaking 1m international visits (a 17.3% increase) were made to Birmingham last year, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Events welcomed in the city last year included Automotive News Europe Congress (June at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole); the 6th Meeting of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) (September at The ICC); the European Sensory Integration Congress (ESiC) (September at Conference Aston) and Climate-KIC Innovation Festival 2015 (October, also at The ICC).
Looking ahead, October 2016 sees the ICC host its fifth Conservative Party Conference since 2008, with 14,000 delegates expected. The venue will also welcome the Aero Engine Forum in April 2017, the first time that BCI Aerospace will host an event in the UK. Over 400 delegates are expected.
The National Exhibition Centre (NEC) will remain as the host of Optrafair for the next four years. The event is the UK’s leading educational conference dedicated to the needs of the optical profession.
Birmingham’s Genting Arena will play host to BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2016.
Emma Gray, director of marketing and communications for Marketing Birmingham, which operates the city’s business tourism programme Meet Birmingham, says the city is targeting the German, Chinese and Indian markets, in particular.
“Events play a vital role in the city’s visitor economy, which hit an all-time high of £6.2bn in 2015,” she says. “By launching new spaces including the Vox Conference Centre and accommodation providers such as Park Regis – we’re ensuring we remain attractive to this valuable market.”
NEC MD Kathryn James says the Greater Birmingham collective offer “is being developed further by a set of masterplans which are currently in progress and will drive even greater visitor numbers in the future”.
In spring 2016, Birmingham’s average hotel occupancy was 75% – the highest on record, up from 74% in 2015 and 71% in 2014.
Hotel revenues are also rising strongly. The Average Room Rate in spring 2016 was £68, up from £61 in 2015 and revenue per available room (RevPAR) was £50, up from £45 in 2015.
Domestic visitor numbers are also on the rise, with arrivals to the city reaching 38.1m.
The year has seen the completion of the £600m redevelopment of New Street Station.
This year’s calendar has also included 50 festivals, while global event management company, Cvent, listed Birmingham 22nd in its second annual ranking of 2,500 EMEA cities, based on event booking activity through its supplier network in 2015. The ranking showed Birmingham overtaking rival Manchester (23rd). The city remains the most popular conference and events location outside the capital for a 7th successive year in the annual British Meetings & Events Industry Survey.
Associations that have recently been in town include the Arts Marketing Association, whose conference in July 2015 brought 650 delegates to Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA), in April 2016. The 59th BSAVA Congress involved 6,683 delegates and attendance was 3% up on last year.
In terms of infrastructure developments, hotel brand Park Regis opened a new property, following a £50m renovation of the former Auchinleck House Building on Broad Street and Malmaison chose Birmingham as the first city to launch its new meetings and events space Work + Play in May.
A multi-million pound development on the corner of Smallbrook Queensway and Hill Street will include 20 additional bedrooms to the existing Holiday Inn Birmingham City Centre, and conference centre.
On the large venue side, The Rep, Austin Court, Symphony Hall and Town Hall in the centre, all back up the offer from the ever popular ICC and NEC. And Edgbaston was able to show off its events spaces during the five-day test match recently.
It is fair to add that while transport to the city is good and the main station hub is now gleaming, getting around Birmingham does present challenges. Something to work on.
Andrew Whiteley (below) of Global Venue Solutions:
“A couple of years ago, a client asked me to organise a two-day residential conference in the Heathrow area as most of the delegates would be flying in from the US, with others coming from Europe. The client’s UK office was in Birmingham.
“Two of the the venues I sourced were from the same chain, one near Birmingham airport and other one within the Heathrow area. The price difference was staggering, the DDR was 50% less in Birmingham which offered free parking and free Wi-Fi.
“My client agreed Birmingham would have been more cost effective and the bulk of the delegate flights would have been serviced by Birmingham airport, but was overruled and the directors still choose Heathrow.”
Rose Padmore, Opening Doors & Venues/ABPCO board member:
“The Midlands has many hidden gems but the issue for these venues tends to be perception. The quality is there, yet many remain a secret. We have used the Regent Centre of the Chateau Impney Hotel in Worcestershire a few times, including for the West Midlands School Leaders Conference. These types of venues shouldn’t be hidden gems and, with the right marketing, the Midlands can become a top destination for medium to large meetings and events in the coming years.”
Chris Peacock, Conference Care:
“Given the unmatched location of the Midlands for events, I think that the road network and poor state of motorways in particular has a negative impact. When you market yourself as having great accessibility, sitting for three hours on the M5 /M6 /M42 doesn’t help.
There’s a wide range of venues and the quality of the larger conference hotels has improved dramatically over the past two years, with most undergoing extensive refurbishments.
“There’s a gap at the top of the luxury scale which could be a huge potential for the right operator and I see the main benefits of HS2 being the reduction of travel time to London, rather than the other way round.
“Birmingham is a strong market at the moment, and we experience a lot of joint 1st option and 2nd option scenarios which can be challenging to manage.
“Both day and residential rates have slightly increased in the first half compared to last year. The average DDR is £41 compared to £40 a year prior. Short notice rates (through our online site www.daydelegate.com) are significantly lower with averages under £30.”
Angela Kingett (left), Frontline Venues UK:
“We have a large variety of industries within our client base ranging from Charities to Gaming clients which means we need to be aware of a variety of venues to suit all budgets.
“Location is always key, usually venues within walking distance from mainline train stations hold the biggest draw.
“The only problem we have encountered with Birmingham city centre is the lack of larger conference space (300+) for the client with a lower end budget.”
Louise Goalen, business director – venue finding, Ashfield Meetings & Events:
“Ashfield has placed over 150 meetings into the Midlands in the first half of 2016 using 40 venues. The recently opened VOX Centre has proven to be popular and the space can be transformed in minutes.
“The cost effectiveness of the region is also an attraction to clients, as they are able to manage their budgets to create greater ROI/ROO.”